Florida Supreme Court approves state's new lethal injection procedureDeborah W. Denno in The Gainesville Sun, December 19, 2013
Florida Supreme Court approves state's new lethal injection procedure
By Kristine Crane
Published: Thursday, December 19, 2013 at 8:58 p.m.
The Florida Supreme Court approved the state's new lethal injection procedure Thursday, signaling that the stayed execution of an inmate on death row who challenged the procedure can take place.
The inmate, Askari Abdullah Muhammad, formerly known as Thomas Knight, filed an appeal to his execution on Dec. 3, on a claim that the drug to be used, midazolam hydrochloride, may not prevent pain.
The Supreme Court denied the claim, supporting the district court's ruling in late November.
The district court in Bradford County ruled that there was no evidence that the drug causes or is “very likely to cause serious illness and needless suffering,” and gives rise to “sufficiently imminent dangers.”
That opinion was based on testimony from an anesthesiologist, pharmacy professor and state inspector who witnessed an execution in which the drug was used — on William Happ on Oct. 15.
The Happ execution raised concerns after journalists' testimonies said that Happ moved several minutes after the administration of the drug.
Dr. Mark Heath, the anesthesiologist at Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center who testified in the district court, said that although he didn't have enough information on the movements made by Happ to conclude on the reason, he speculated that Happ might not have been fully anesthetized.
However, he concluded that the drug, in the dosage used by the Department of Corrections — which is 500 milligrams — would induce unconsciousness, respiratory failure and death.
Lee Evans, a pharmacy professor at Auburn University, also testifying on behalf of the state, said the drug in half the dosage amount used by the state would render a person unconscious within one and a half to two minutes.
Evans also said Happ's movement could have been a compensation for the respiratory failure induced by the drug.
The Supreme Court concluded that a drug that makes inmates unconscious works effectively.
Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University in New York, who has studied lethal injection procedures in the U.S., disagreed with the ruling. She pointed out that in the case of Heath's testimony, “As an anesthesiologist in a hospital setting, that's an entirely different kettle of fish than what happens in a prison setting.”
She also said that the court struck down Muhammad's requests for information, for example, on members of the execution team and their qualifications.
“The process remains absolutely shut and sealed and secretive,” she said.
Dr. Joel Zivot, an assistant professor of anesthesiology at Emory University, questions the soundness of any scientific conclusion of the true effect of the drug used in an execution.
“You cannot guarantee that there is not awareness,” Zivot said. “These drugs aren't intended to be used to kill people,”
The Florida Department of Corrections had no comment on the ruling and has previously said that it started using midazolam hydrochloride because of a shortage of the drug it had previously used, pentobarbital sodium.
Zivot pointed out that there is also a shortage of midazolam hydrochloride in the clinic. According to the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists website, the drug is in short supply.
This shortage is another reason the Florida Supreme Court's decision is worrying, Zivot said.
“Instead of being given to patients, (the drug) is used to kill people. That doesn't seem ethical to me,” Zivot said.
Muhammad, 62, was convicted of killing corrections officer Richard Burke in 1980 in Miami-Dade County.
The DOC could not say when the execution of Muhammad would take place.